Archive for October 2008

John McCain’s Potemkin Candidacy — a science-ish perspective.

October 30, 2008

Matthew Yglesiashas a a post today that crystallized my sense of the idiocy upon which McCain has based his candidacy.

Yglesias writes that the formerly respected economist Douglas Holz-Eakin continued his pattern of inadvertent truth-telling about McCain’s lack of actual policy plans, this time in the area of support for college education.  DHE admits that the sum total of the McCain effort here will be…begging:

As president, Mr. McCain would take a bully pulpit approach to student aid, aides say. Rather than propose any new federal money, he would jawbone and publicly try to coax colleges to slow their rate of tuition increases using the federal tax exemptions they receive as leverage.

Also, we learn that support for Pell grants, the major federal support for low-income college goers, will be limited to saying that it would be nice if they were more valuable, without any money actually going to that goal.

What I realized reading this is that this is McCain’s entire approach to policy.  He wishes for things.  He promises “plans” that do not, on closer inspection, exist.  He clicks his heels and hopes for magic.

This is another way of saying that from a point of view shaped by thinking about and reporting on science, McCain’s candidacy is based not on any rational approach to problem framing and problem solution, but on magical thinking.

Let me give just a couple of examples.  McCain has, from the start of the financial crisis, railed against greed and corruption on Wall St. and has promised “to put a stop to it.”  But look through his website for any actual set of policy proposals that will actually alter the regulatory framework of American financial markets, and please, write me if you find anything that says what McCain would do to achieve these ends.  I’ve looked and looked and looked some more, and haven’t found anything.

Same thing with the War on Terror.  McCain says he knows how to get Osama bin Laden, but strangely hasn’t managed to get the message over to the Pentagon.

Same thing with his response to the housing crisis:  a promise not to let those who profited off the mortgage business get rich off the bailout, and a proposal that would offer only “deserving families” who could afford a new, 30 year mortgage on the balance owed a crack at a new loan — which by his own admission would benefit no more than 400,000 of the estimated 2.5 million foreclosures that could occur this year alone (740,000 were already in some stage of foreclosure by July.)

It goest on.  I’ve already blogged more than once about an approach to climate change that seems to depend on increasing the incentives for the use of more fossil fuels.  An approach to balancing the budget that increases the deficit and so on.

Compare all this with what it takes to do science.  The form of a scientific paper is often misleading, presenting a much smoother picture of the transformation of an idea into a result, but still, it provides a useful idealization of what it takes to accomplish something.

You have to know what you are trying to do, come up with a set of procedures that you and your peers will agree addresses the problem you’ve stated, perform the experiment, and report and interpret the results.

McCain’s approach is much more like that famous S. Harris cartoon, in which one savant has covered a blackboard with a thicket of math to cover steps 1 and 3 — but at the crucial middle stage we read “a miracle occurs.”  His colleague, looking over the scribblings says only “I think you should be more explicit here in step two.”

I don’t know about  you, but I’m too tired right now to be polite — I’ve just come back from my third trip to canvas in New Hampshire this week, and I’m waking up in the dark of every night muttering the names of swing states.  So let me just say that we’ve had eight years of a combination of thuggery and magical thinking and I don’t want one minute more.

McCain lacks the intellectual rigor for the job he seeks.  No one who has tackled a real problem and knows what it takes should tolerate the kind of contempt his campaign has demonstrated for the hard thinking it takes to lead.

Clear enough?

Image:  The Flying Monkeys by W. W. Denslow from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, also known as The Wizard of Oz, a 1900 children’s novel by L. Frank Baum.  Source: Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library

Good Times In Cambridge Tomorrow: Great New Science Writer/Pigeon Love Edition

October 29, 2008

A great big shout out to Courtney Humphries, pride of the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing, class of ’04, who is reading from and taking questions about her wonderful new book, Superdove on the MIT campus.

All those of you in the area who want to (a) hear some very cool stuff about one of the most effectively opportunistic of our fellow creatures and (b) watch a very talented science writer (and writer, full stop) spread her wings (sorry, inevitable) in the early stages of what will be a great career should show up in MIT building 32, room 141, tomorrow, Thursday, October 30 at seven p.m.

Interactive map here.  Hint:  Building 32 is also known as the Stata Center, and it is the Gehry building (aka the melted building) on Vassar St. near its intersection with Main St.

Come if you can.  Courtney’s the real deal, and there are few pleasures to match that of seeing one of the good guys making their debut in the big leagues.

NY Times review of Superdove here, if you aren’t willing just to take my word for it.

Image:  J. J. Audubon, Plate 17 from Volume IV, Audubon’s Birds of America. Pictured are Carolina Pigeons (Turtle Doves), Columba carolinensis, on a flowering bush of Stewartia malacodendron.

The Science Vote: An Entirely Unsurprising Endorsement by Your Faithful Blogger

October 29, 2008

The past week or so have seen a number of significant endorsements for Barack Obama coming from moderate Republicans (endangered, yes — perhaps less than a hundred breeding pairs in the wild), and in a few cases, genuinely much further right than those, (see Adelman, Kenneth, self described as not a neo-con, but a con-con.)

Adelman’s endorsement and that of the big dog on the block, Colin Powell, both emphasized the larger question of the qualities of the two men running for President over policy specifics. Adelman even allowed that he disagreed with Obama more than McCain on a point by point basis, but that he nonetheless will vote for Obama “primarily for two reasons, those of temperament and of judgment” — as evidenced by McCain’s erratic lurching during the onset of the financial meltdown and his choice of Sarah Palin respectively.

Those are reasons a national security voter would seize upon, and I agree that they are, or ought to be, sufficient to secure Obama an unprecedented unanimous vote next Tuesday.

But it occurs to me that in my discussions of McCain’s disqualifications for the office he seeks from the point of view of what would be best for American science, I’ve tended to focus on process, on political nuts and bolts, to the partial exclusion of the kind of overarching “quality of his mind” arguments that the Powell and Adelman endorsements emphasized.  See especially this post for what I mean, this, and this besides if you are a glutton for punishment.

So it’s a fact that in all likelihood McCain will gut science spending, and pick winners and loser for reasons outside the judgment of professionals as to the promising areas of pursuit (think of it as executive department earmarks) is amply supported by the evidence.

But the deeper danger for US science research and education that a McCain and Palin adminstration lies with their catastrophic failure to understand what is required to do science in the first place.  They lack the understanding, the breadth of knowledge and experience, the judgment to be stewards of the single national endeavour that matters most to our longterm security and  prosperity.

Why do I say so?  Because that conclusion seems to me by far the most reasonable interpretation of the statements made by Sen. McCain and Governor Palin, both recently and over much longer time frames.

These statements are by now familiar to most folks likely to be reading this blog, so I won’t go into my usual logorrhea here.  But the highlights bear remembering.

John McCain repeatedly, and Sarah Palin very recently confirmed that they do not understand the connection between specific inquiries and broader research programs.  McCain has made a habit of decrying research into bear DNA.  Palin, more catastrophically, recently made insufficiently ridiculed remarks about “fruit fly research in Paris France,” adding “I kid you not.”*

Kidding she wasn’t; celebratory in her ignorance she was.  Not to belabor the point, but if you like the prospects of modern gene-centered research in particular and molecular biology in general, you have to do a ton of research just like the two maligned projects.

Elect Palin and McCain if you want put perhaps the single most fruitful research area in all of current science into the category of things you laugh at because they sound wierd.  This is a case where the two candidates demonstrate that they lack  ability to understand and interpret the connections between particulars and the bigger picture.  I can’t think of a worse attribute in potential Presidents.

Then there is the ability to hold contradictory ideas in one’s head without noticing.  There are too many examples of this to list.  Some of them, I think, merely expedient willed ignorance — think of McCain’s hopelessly impossible budget proposals, with its freeze that isn’t a freeze, a promised end to the AMT, renewed tax cuts for the wealthiest, increases in military spending, stimulus and financial bailout to add to the half-trillion dollar current deficit and a promise to balance the budget in four or eight, or four, or eight years or wherever Douglas Holz-Eakin has left his abacus rightnow.

But others are either truly cynical — lies told to gain political power, again, not a qualification for the office such behavior is intended to secure — or signs of real intellectual blindness.

A simple and obvious case is McCain’s attempt to suggest that he is at once serious about controlling climate disruption and increasing fossil fuel use — see e.g. the gas tax holiday, still promised on his website, and drill, baby drill.  The two categories are incompatible.  You can’t control human impacts on climate unless you create incentives to cut carbon use — that is to say, make the price of fossil fuels go up.  McCain has said he supports a cap-and-trade mechanism to do just that (though one of the posts linked above describes just how hollow a promise that is), but such a mechanism is meaningless in the face of determination to expand the availability and drop the price of fossil fuels.  You can’t do one and have the other.

And promoting such policies, as McCain did just today in Florida, means, just to repeat it, that he is either lying when he promises one outcome or the other, or he simply cannot process the fact that the two policy goals are incompatible.  You choose which explanation you like.  It doesn’t matter.  No such person can be trusted to make sensible decisions about the future of science (or much else for that matter) for the United States.

Again: the point I am trying to make is not that McCain and Palin have articulated bad policies for American science, though they have, but that the way they think, their poor judgment about technical and scientific matters, their lack of capacity to grasp how the actual daily work of science proceeds matter more.  Their willingness to ridicule specific bits of research they don’t understand exacerbates the problem by diminishing the value our culture as whole places on inquiry and discovery.

The bottom line:  a President McCain or, should the plausible succession occur, a President Palin, do not possess the qualities required to nurture the future of American science. Their ascendancy would rob the enterprise of both the hard cash and the oxygen of cultural approbation it needs to survive.

On the other hand, if you care about the ability of the United States to retain its narrowing pre-eminence in scientific and technical research, you would do far, far better to vote for Senator Barack Obama and his Vice Presidential partner, Senator Joseph Biden.

*I don’t mean to say that Governor Palin wasn’t ridiculed for her fruit fly idiocy.  It’s just that she wasn’t derided enough.

Image:  Joseph Wright, “An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump,” 1768.  Source:  The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202.

The Dreaded Blog Tag Game: Six Random Self Absorptions Edition

October 28, 2008

So Abel Pharmboy does me the honor (sic) of tagging me with this meme:

1. Link to the person who tagged you….check*

2. Post the rules on your blog….check

3. Write six random things about yourself….see below

4. Tag six people at the end of your post and link to them….heh, heh, heh.

5. Let each person know they’ve been tagged and leave a comment on their blog….oh, they’ll know.

6. Let the tagger know when your entry is up….got that, Abel?

Before I get to dealing with number 3, I have got to lay down my marker on the altitude bragging competition going on between Abel and Dr. Isis.  Now I can’t claim more than 12,000 ft under my own power — but when I was working on this film I made repeated rapid transitions from 8,400 ft. to 16,700, and on one occasion, a little more.  (I’d like to say 17k, but I was  probably a hundred feet or so short).

This was  up in the high Atacama Desert, very close to the point where Bolivia, Argentina and Chile come together.  I was there filming precision cosmologist Tony Readhead use his Cosmic Background Imager to measure CMB to finer resolution than had previously been achieved.  It was high enough, and we weren’t doing the kind of proper acclimatization needed to work at those altitudes unaided, so we walked around with little bottles of oxygen, taking hits of the good stuff at a regular, measured rate.

Let me tell you, folks: until you have seen the southern sky at night — on a moonless night — with the Milky Way like Broadway across the sky and the Magellenic Clouds creating a density of light and pattern that no northern view will ever hold, right after a great big hit of oxygen to get your eyes in focus….you haven’t seen the stars.

That won’t impress my old friend David Breashears, any, but I sure do like making astronomy films, and time at altitude is a big reason why.

Onto the six random things:

1. I was born at Alta Bates Hospital, thus making me that rara avis, a true native of Berkeley, CA.  Much about my world view is perhaps thus explained.  (Bonus fact:  Alta Bates is named for its founder, a nurse, and it retains a tradition of great and nurturing nurse-driven care, much appreciated during by the Levenson family during my mother’s last illness.  She had hoped to die at home, but the hospital did the best they could to make her feel comfort, from moving her bed to catch the sunset over the bay to politely ignoring our smuggling in her beloved golden retriever, Fanny.)

2.   I used to be able to read while riding in a car, which resulted in my memorizing virtually all of Walter Brooks Freddy the Pig series.

3.  I met Louis Leakey in 1972, in the last summer of his life.  He and my Uncle, a British soldier turned farmer, had known each other in Kenya, and Dr. Leakey had come to recuperate from some heart trouble in a village near the farm.  He came to tea and held court for a couple of hours.  I was fourteen, bored and sulky, but he evoked questions, and I found myself in my first real conversation with a working scientist.  It was a transformational event — mostly I recall how he described his questions, and how each one raised and addressed led him to another.  This, I thought was cool.  (Also–most of what he talked about was contemporary biological anthropology, not the paleo-sort for which he was famous.  That too, I thought was cool, the fact that he didn’t confine himself to ploughing the same furrow over and over again.)  (Bonus note — Jane Goodall’s mum was keeping Leakey company, so I got to meet her thirty six  years before I met Jane herself).

4.  Echoing Abel, I too have taken money from a pharmaceutical company, Smith Kline Beecham, happily agreeing to act as the “before” poster child in a before and after campaign for the Hepatitis A vaccine, having had a ruinous bout of that illness following a film shoot in Mexico.  I had no pangs of conscience in taking money for what I would have done for free:  encouraging everyone to get vaccinated against Hep A and now, in a combination vaccine, B.  With the new vaccines (now not so new, I guess) there is no reason anyone should suffer what I went through, not to mention the worse prospect of a B infection — so don’t be stupid folks; go get the jabs.

5.  I drive a convertible.  In New England.  In winter.  It is a matter of principle that the top go down at least once in every month.

6.  When my son decided to name our new pet Tikka, I immediately told him that the animal’s full name would henceforth be “Kitten Tikka Masala.”

So now, who to tag?

Lovable Liberal:  you’re up.

How could one pass up the opportunity to learn a half dozen “facts” about Jen-Luc Picard?

Elizabeth Pisani — and not just because her book and her blog has perhaps the best name ever.

Carl Zimmer, nicely settled in to his new digs at, and not just because I am reading with pleasure right now his Soul Made Flesh.

Eric Roston, because it is always good to remind folks that without carbon, life itself would be improbable.  (You have to of a certain age to get the reference…)

Unlike the five above, I’ve never met or corresponded with Cosma Shalizi, but his blog is a consistent joy.  I tend to check it about once a month and read up on all that I’ve missed — like this astonishingly wonderful antidote to my monomaniacal election obsession.  Don’t know how he’ll take to being tagged by a stranger, (not well, I’d guess) but, worth a shot.

Image:  François Lemoyne, “Narcissus,” 1688.  Source:  The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202.

No, really, tell me what you think — Why I Love Charles Barkley Edition.

October 28, 2008

Sir Charles announces his intention to run for governor of Alabama in 2014.  Along the way, he discusses the issue of sociological rankings of his own and nearby states thusly:

When asked if he was serious, the former Philadelphia 76er said, “I am, I can’t screw up Alabama.”

He added that his native state could only improve. “We are number 48 in everything and Arkansas and Mississippi aren’t going anywhere,” Barkley said. (h/t T-N C)

Now if only another famous politician would take note:  this is how you do straight talk, my man.

(Now if we could only suspend geography and perhaps partisan affiliation (I really don’t know) and get Basketball Jesus to run against Sir Charles.  The depth, breadth and sheer outrageous quality of the trash talk would threaten to end the universe as we know it.)

Socialists for McCain!

October 27, 2008

Outsourced to Barbara Ehrenreich.  Money quote:

After months of studying the candidates’ economic plans, we have determined that one of them, and only one, can be relied on to complete the destruction of capitalism. With high hopes and great confidence, the Socialist International Conspiracy endorses John McCain!

Read the whole column.  It’s funny enough to make you go….hmmmmmm.

Image:  Poster depicted a Hero of the Soviet Union, 1952.  The caption reads “Day after day, life becomes even happier!”

All the John McCains I Thought I Knew Are Dead.

October 27, 2008

There is a video that kind of came and went in the flurry of last week’s election noise, the wardrobe that cost three times the median income for a US family and all that.  It’s a French interview with the then young John McCain as a POW.

He’s clearly still hurting — a lot — from his injuries and he struggles to express himself a lot of the time.  He can muster up a little humor:  prisoner’s food “isn’t Paris” and more sense of loss and lonliness.  The passage at the end of the video where he tries to come up with a message for his wife would move anyone with a pulse, even as committed a partisan and McCain ’08 loather as myself.

Watching it, having just turned fifty myself, with, as President Clinton said, the awareness that I now have more yesterdays than tomorrows, and watching my own eight year old son, I was reminded of these lines from a poem I read just a few days ago.

Children vanish.

Adults — specters

of dead children.

(From “Children, Always Dying” by Aaron Zeitlin, translated from the Yiddish by Richard J. Fein in his upcoming collection With Everything We’ve Got:  A personal anthology of Yiddish poetry.)

I do not wish John McCain well at all in his current endeavor.  He has run a scurrilous, disgraceful campaign, putting the country at risk not just with his meretricious selection of Gov. Palin as his running mate, but in the way he has surrendered his candidacy to worst impulses of his party in recent weeks.  He lacks the temperament, the judgment, and even, this blog has argued, the right kind of experience to lead the United States.

But, but, but….

…he was a child once, a young man.  He suffered, and he had then a clarity, brutally enforced, about what does and does not matter.  While I fear for the country for McCain’s actions over the last few months, what saddens me most about his campaign is not the damage he is doing to the rest of us, but  the destruction his pursuit of this prize has done to that younger McCain.

That man died in the birthing of the catastrophically diminished one that we now see.

Here’s the video for those that missed it:

A Milestone — and an apology

October 27, 2008

Milestone first:  On Friday, this blog, in existence since early December last year, crossed the magic (well — not really) 100,000 visitor mark, a number which, if I interpret my WordPress stuff right, does not include any of you wonderful subscribers.

It ain’t quite in the big leagues yet — but I feel like we are together making good, steady progress up the system.  If I can make the leap from Portland to Pawtucket over the next year, then it’s all good. (A little local color for those of you not familiar with the Red Sox farm system.;)

Thanks to all who have taken a look.  May your tribe ever increase — and for my part, I’ve got some thoughts as to what to do to make this blog a continuingly useful place to come after next week.  Any suggestions gratefully received as well.

And that leads to the apology: I’ve gone into complete neurosis mode on the election.  The only  treatment I know (there is no cure) is to get my butt out and do something — anything.  So from Wed., every hour that my family does not need me and that my job does not require is going to be spent up in New Hampshire at the disposal of the Salem Democratic/Obama HQ.  I’ll try to get some stuff up, but blogging’s going to be a bit light from now through the fourth.

Best of luck to us all — and thanks again to all my readers.

Image:  “A Game of Baseball at the Polo Grounds...” engraving from Harper’s Young People, v. III (1882), p.524,

Program Notes: Technology Review/Former Student Props edition

October 26, 2008

A little suggested reading, combined with some love for recent graduates of the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing — the little corner of the Institute which it is now my honor to direct.

First up, the cover story in the current Technology Review, “Sun + Water = Fuel” by Kevin Bullis, who completedthe grad program in 2005.  It tells the story of a discovery by MIT chemist Daniel Nocera, who has found a catalyst that may (note the conditional) make it possible to separate oxygen out of water at a cost that would make that energy source competitive or better with fossil fuels.

I had thought to blog this finding when the press release hit my inbox, but now I don’t have to.  Kevin has done an excellent bit of reporting, explains what’s going on clearly, and writes it up with, I think, the correct balance of optimism and the always needed skepticism in the face of technological predictions.  (See the comment thread on this article for an illustration of the line Kevin tried to walk.)   He’s a writer to watch — graceful and stylish, with a true love of tech.

Then there’s this story, “The Flaw at the Heart of the Internet.”  Erica Naone is another one of our stars.  She graduated from our program in 2007.  This story is chilling in its account of the near miss in which Dan Kaminsky identified a significant vulnerability in the way the web matches more or less plain  language names, the DNS monikers like “” with the numerical addresses by which the internet itself identiies for the locations thus named.  That flaw would allow attackers to hijack DNS information and replace the intended material with content of the marauder’s own.

While Black Hat 2008 awarded Kaminsky its Pwnie Award for “Most Overhyped Bug,” Erica’s piece gives you a very good argument why (a) you should have been at least retrospectively, very, very afraid; and (b) more generally, to remember the eternal truth most vividly expressed in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, that the internet is not a benign playground.  There be dragons out there.*

On that note — a third article in the current Tech Review that is a true must read comes from my old friend and long-time MIT guy Simson Garfinkel. (If there were anyone with beaver-blood running in his veins, its Simson, a four (or more, I can’t keep up) Institute degree holder who is as far as I can tell, perfectly adapted to MIT’s unique intellectual island ecosystem.)

The piece, “Wikipedia and the Meaning of Truth,” Simson has written what seems to me to be a very important article that emphasizes the Wikipedia’s appeal to authority as its ultimate standard of what merits inclusion in what is rapidly becoming the default web-based repository of recognized knowledge.  A must read, IMHO.

(And I have one anecdote about the pitfalls of the imputation of authority of printed sources.  I wrote an article not that long ago for a national publication not to be named here.  The fact checker called me up to confirm some detail.  I said, basically, that it had come out of my own research.  She demanded a published source.  I asked if my own book would do.  She said yes.  Sic.)

*The other pleasure of Erica’s article for me was that I finally got a semi-definitive (at least Wikipedia-worthy) pronounciation for the web-slang term “pwn” — which apparently rhymes with “own.”  I had previously suggested at least partly tongue-in-cheek that it might derive from the Welsh use of the “w” as a vowel. The Welsh “cwm” pronounced “koom” exists as a loanword in English (and has also be transcribed as Comb or Coombe). Given that earlier this year I offered the suggestion/question whether or not pwn should be pronounced “poon,” following the Welsh example, and evoking Neal Stephenson’s use of the word in Snow Crash to describe what his character Y.T. does when she uses her magnetic harpoon to attach to the vehicles that can pull her along on her Kourier rounds.  Sadly, inventive as that may have been, it appears that my attempt at etymology is not just wrong, but terribly, terribly so.

Image:  J.M.W. Turner, “Sunrise With Sea Monsters,” 1845.

Suspicious self aggrandizement watch: Megan McArdle edition

October 24, 2008

Today on her blog, noted business school graduate turned economic philosopher Megan McArdle explains herself:

why do the better class of critics, left and right, generally fail to engage the lunatics on the other side?  I do it to. (sic)

I’m not sure from the construction if she means that the better class of critics perform one action, and she, not a member of that class, also performs that action, or if she, as a member of that better class acts in accordance with class norms.

If the former, then I got no problem with her self-description.  If the latter…

Well, as I was brought up, if you have to say how haut monde you are, it tends to confirm the opposite.

Seriously, when someone with McArdle’s training (not in economics) and professional output claims class solidarity with Paul Krugman, you have to wonder if it might not be a good idea to bail out of the echo chamber for a while.

Roger Moore Glandauer:  Red-crowned Amazon (Amazona viridigenalis)